The Broken Chicken Heart

According to this Associated Press article, in a deposition given in 2006, Bill Cosby admitted to giving drugs to at least one woman, and other people, in order to have sex. As of this writing at least fifty additional woman have come forward to make the same accusation.

Growing up in the era of the three broadcast networks and just a few local channels, good comedy reached our house by way of record albums. I remember my mother listening to Allan Sherman (in particular My Son, The Nut, with that great picture of Sherman with just his head above a sea of nuts). She also had several albums from Jonathan Winters, warped and whacky, my favorite being Another Day, Another World. Later, an album by George Carlin showed up, and I was allowed to listen to one side of the record, but could not hear the other side until I was older. That album was Take Offs and Put Ons, and to this day Carlin’s satire of top-40 radio, the Wonderful W-I-N-O skit, remains one of the best and funniest things I’ve ever heard – of course you had to be listening to radio at that time to understand just how good Carlin’s work was. On that same album, Carlin’s imitation of a television cooking show chef explaining how to make grits is also spot on. After watching Saturday Night Live in the late 1970’s, I bought a couple of albums by Steve Martin, whose comedy I liked and  whom I’ve written about before.

After college I never bought any more comedy albums, and the only time I saw comedy was at the occasional comedy venue in San Francisco, or perhaps Saturday Night Live, which over the years the cast became unknown to me. I knew Robin Williams had comedy specials on the growing world of cable television, but never watched any of these, nor those of new names (at that time) such as Dave Chapelle, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen Degeneres, among others. More recently I have seen occasional clips of Dave Stewart or Louis C.K., and time permitting, which it isn’t, I’d certainly like to watch more of these.

In addition to the above mentioned professionals there were a few amateurs in my life who stood out, mostly in the form of classmates. In Dick Hagen’s sixth grade geography class at St. Stephen’s, one day when the topic was Central Europe, my friend Bill, our desks were next to each other in the back row, turned to me and said, “If Yugoslavia, I’ll puke!” (at the time that country had only a few more years of life left ). It’s hard to explain, but to me that was brillant and hysterical. A few years later, I think in Mrs. Rodger’s mathematics class, another classmate, Clark did a realistic imitation of a cat horking up a hairball, but the teacher never noticed him, just those of us laughing. Senior year still another classmate, Robert, would draw, write, and post on the bulletin board of our senior lounge a comic titled “The Adventures of Phallic Man” – such were the joys available to those at single sex schools.

I never watched Bill Cosby in the I Spy television show nor did I see The Cosby Show, but I did see a few Fat Albert cartoons on Saturday morning television, but I only watched these for a few minutes. I never saw Cosby in concert although my family did: in 199* my mother, brother, and his wife went to see Bill Cosby perform in Ocean City, Maryland. To her regret, my sister stayed at home to babysit my brother’s toddler – she regretted this because during the show one of Cosby’s skits was about going to the dentist, and as it happened, my sister was a dentist. During the show, my brother’s wife, eight months pregnant with their second child, had to lay down in the aisle to keep from going into labor, she was laughing that hard.

However, I did own one album of Cosby’s, Wonderfulness, recorded in 1966, but I probably bought it about eight years later, and it was indeed wonderful, and very funny. Two skits in particular stand out, the first being the one about Cosby having his tonsils out, the longest skit on the record, running about fifteen minutes. Cosby captures well the what was then the standard tonsillectomy process, from the sore throat evaluation to the lies told to the child (“they’ll give you all the ice cream in the world you can eat”) to the post operation pain and reality. I had my tonsils out when I was eight, and I still remember the pre-operation shot in my butt, the needle was really big, then afterwards laying on the hospital bed, on my stomach although the top of the bed was raised such that I was forced into the cobra yoga position. I remember I was drooling. Sometime later I was in the operating room, when the doctor placed the cold dry jet fighter style mask over my face, and I was out. After the operation I barfed blood for two days. Cosby’s experience was nearly the same as mine.

The other memorable skit from Wonderfulness  was The Chicken Heart – a young Cosby listens to a horror radio show when his parents are out for dinner. As his listens he becomes terrified by the story of the chicken heart that ate New York City. Listening to it again recently, I am reminded why I like the radio, which like reading, requires more imagination than something on the screen, where are the work is done for you and you are just a passive receptacle. With radio and reading listener and reader supply the images, and in the case of young Cosby, he is so terrified by the radio drama he smears jello on the floor and sets the couch on fire to deter the attacking chicken heart. The Tonsils story is my favorite, but the Chicken Heart is a close second.

Comedy, not drama, I think is the harder art, and perhaps the more important one. Both entertain. Drama might educate, warn, or inspire, but comedy can soothe, and when things aren’t always going well, laughter lubricates life (excuse the cliche and alliteration). Leaving aside the stage, I’ve enjoyed actors who’ve crossed the chasm from comedy to drama: Bill Murray as Larry Darryl in The Razor’s Edge (Roger Ebert didn’t care for Murray’s role in this film, but he did praise Murray for Lost in Translation) or Steve Martin in The Spanish Prisoner or Leap of Faith. Vince Vaughn was his usual funny motormouth in Swingers, but I also enjoyed him playing opposite Anne Heche in Return to Paradise. It is Robin Williams, so wonderful, who plays the psychiatrist in Good Will Hunting.  Dan Aykroyd and Joan Cusack are others who’ve successfully crossed over into drama. I’m not sure if there are dramatic actors who have successfully worked in comedy, but I’m sure there are some. If you can sail in the San Francisco Bay, you are well prepared to sail just about anywhere, and if you can do comedy…well, both are mostly true.

Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy (Fitzgerald). History and the daily news teach us to be indifferent to fallen politicians and ecclesiastics, whether they yearn for power or can’t keep it in their pants: Richard Nixon, Jimmy Swaggert, John Kennedy, some random Catholic priest. The greed of financiers, Boesky, Milken, Keating, and the so many un-indicted of Wall Street is also well known and not surprising, even though the harm of their crimes often causes greater damage to society than that of politicians’. No domain is safe: Pete Rose, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods.

It’s easy to grow numb to all the greed and lust across all sectors of society, such that it’s hard to be surprised anymore, but every so often there’s the occasional untainted constant: never strayed, never bribed, never succumbed, never inhaled. Until he did. And some transgressions are more egregious than others, especially given that Cosby’s comedy was devoid of profanity and pornography, and there was something special, wonderful, about his overlapping domains of comedy and childhood. But not anymore.

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